This follow-up to the previous post will focus more on general team and club issues over time. The last post addressed why I think we were all overreacting to the Chelsea loss. Yes, we have lost to the top four teams more often than not in the last 5 or 10 seasons (whatever stats you choose to apply). No, we don’t ALWAYS lose big in away games. Last season was the first time I can remember we lost with wide margins so consistently in away games. And nobody’s saying anything about we did not lose at home to any of them (since they were all draws and it didn’t seem to matter anyways).
So far this season, I believe we have better personnel than we’ve had in a long while. Before I start to talk about why I think we should slow down a bit, let me try and explain the little foundation fact I’m basing my argument upon. We moved to the Emirates from Highbury and were in debt so we couldn’t spend as much as we wanted on players. Even though it took quite some time for most of us to accept the fact that we will not be able to buy players in the manner of Chelsea (after Abramovich) and later Man City (after the Arabs), that was what was going on behind the scene. It might have frustrated some of us because we could have found new money of our own and spent well (Usmanov was very willing to be our sugar daddy then) but the club is run in a certain way and that is still part of what many people respect today.
Ok, so we couldn’t buy players, and if you allow me to try to play Wenger a bit here, we had to work with what we had, which was still quite okay, if only a watered down version of the glory days. Cesc was taking over as the main creative hub, Eduardo was firing, RvP was doing well for a half-season guy, Wilshere was later coming through, Clichy was inconsistent but you could sense he was still useful. Nasri was a nice option in attack. Walcott was also not consistent but a speed monster was always most welcome. You could see that if we could keep everyone together a season or two more we wouldn’t complain too much about the money because we could have spent the little we had on nice squad additions (like the Cazorlas and Podolskis that came later) and we would have the cohesion that helped a lot last season.
But things started to fall apart. Eduardo had his leg literally handed to him and was never the same player again. Wilshere had one mightily good season and also went the way of Eduardo. Same too, Ramsey. Fabregas worked his way out to play for his boyhood club. Nasri and Clichy jumped at the Arab money. Then after his only really superb season as a Gunner, RvP carried the small boy in him to the Red Devils. Well, you could say Wenger should have invested the cash he got from all those sales on quality acquisitions and admittedly he really could have done better (like buy Suarez back then, for instance, idk) but when you’re Wenger and you’re building a team and then everyone that mattered starts leaving or getting injured, a type of confusion sets in. Should you try to keep a core and believe your returning players will give you the balance you want while adding a few other players or just go all out, spending on players of presumably higher quality and start building around them again without the assurance that they’d be patient enough to wait for you to do that? Remember you’re still financially handicapped and the money you really have to spend per time is from player sales so you can’t actually buy a heap of star players at once with extra cash.
Well, without the money, Wenger made decisions best described by us as stingy money management until last year when we were told (and we saw enough evidence) that we could now spend. So based on the foregoing, I would divide Wenger’s era as Pre-Emirates, Emirates Debt and Debt-free periods. Pre-Emirates obviously was where all the good stuff was. Emirates Debt period was that period until last year when we were allowed to believe we couldn’t compete because we couldn’t spend like others. Debt-free (which isn’t exactly debt-free but shackles had fallen off) is the period from Ozil 42.5 to Alexis 32.0 going forward. Now that these periods have been defined, we will ignore Pre-Emirates for the purpose of this discussion.
Now, Emirates Debt (ED) period was that period we went trophyless for over 8 years. I know the media never had any sympathy for us during this period, and I care less about what they think anyway. As a fan, however, if you truly believe that with the financial situation we had and key players leaving the club over time, we should have truly challenged for the title and other major trophies, I’ll like to hear your argument. It wasn’t like we never did try anyway. We were beaten in an FA Cup final where Wenger kept faith with the squad that got us there while Chelsea rolled out a fully experienced team. I think he could have been forgiven for thinking that he could still recover if the main team grows together over the next few seasons. Then the Birmingham Carling Cup final where all sorts of things went wrong with the players and I’d be damned if Wenger caused that loss. Still, trophyless is trophyless.
If you are one of those fans that say you actually respect that he kept us in the top 4 and the UCL through all that period then I’d like to believe you understand that we were actually hampered through that period which is the point I’m trying to make.
Now, last season was the first season after the ED period, I think we as fans should try to look at things through that perspective and know that our handicap period was one of poor records against direct competitors. Why do they always cite statistics covering last five seasons or last 10 seasons (basically covering our handicap period)? Why not go as far back as the 18 years Wenger has spent? They do not recognize that we were handicapped, but we shouldn’t follow the same pattern unless we actually agree with them that we weren’t, in which case you wouldn’t understand my argument. Last season was the first time we would spend big on a notable world star so I’d prefer to think that is the season we became competitive again. That was when we can start taking notable stats and when we can start really getting frustrated at what was and was not done or what trophies have been won and what competitions have been contested keenly.
If we take that approach, I think we could say an improvement was seen in that we got a trophy in our first year of really spending money. That is some progress. Now, we can hold the team to ransom for not displaying a competitive edge against the ‘big teams’. So what else happened last season? Well, we took points off the little teams much more consistently than ever before. A stretch of those sort of games helped us, prematurely, to the top for a long time only for us to cross a patch of many key games at a time and drop back down. That was somehow different from the seemingly regular struggles at the beginning of the season where we drop points against most teams early and start picking up the necessary ones later while still not having enough for the big games. This meant mostly throughout our handicap period, we were chasing fourth or third place not falling back like last season. That is a little positive difference for me.
So in essence, the key was the big games. Yet this was our first season as a competitive squad. I think Wenger also got ahead of himself after spending his first big money thinking we could now immediately go at the big guns just to let them know we’re back. This backfired with massive goals conceded after lots of player errors. I think now he knows better. It’s a battle you’ll have to get some form of consistent results first before you start riding your own wave to victory. Now we’ve bought another big star, from another major team no less and we were able to replace key players that left adequately except one. And we didn’t fix an area we all agreed was problematic. To a certain extent, this is even debatable, but I’ll get to that.
So we’ve certainly spent money now like never before in the last 9-10 seasons and this means we’re coming strong as a competitive force, theoretically. Now remains how the units we’ve got come together as a real team. This was always going to be the challenge, however. Alexis brings something new to the team and an adjustment was inevitable. Wenger has always been blamed in the past for playing the same kind of game season in, season out. Arsenal had no spine. They can’t even win ugly. They give up too easily. Here’s one of the reasons I say many of the fans have taken these narratives hook, line and sinker. Last season and the last ten games from the previous season saw Arsenal grind out wins in some of the ugliest manners ever seen from the team. Yet many still say today that we play the same kind of game and they’re tired of it! What nonsense!
Again the ‘Wenger is stubborn and has no plan B’ narrative is being murdered as we’re seeing this season but we aren’t patient enough to wait for it to happen before we shut it down. Wenger played a 4-2-3-1 formation last season which turned out extremely effective against the small boys but not so much away at the big boys (again, we never lost at home to any of them). This season, he is trying out a 4-1-4-1 (or 4-3-3 variation) which he feels will be more effective against the big boys and we’ve only dropped two points against a team not around us in terms of quality (Leicester). We’ve beaten Palace and Villa as we should and drawn Man City, Everton and Tottenham. Of those last 3, the Spurs are the only one who were truly bad on the day and should have been beaten, but then again, we were still trying out our Plan B. I really don’t believe he’s trying to shunt Ozil out wide forever. I think he’s doing something like trying to make sure the opposition cannot predict us by shutting down Ozil when we would have had others who can fill in the role. Maybe that’s not it but then the fact is that he’s still experimenting. If I were alone in this, I’d be looking forward to next year to really have massive confidence for the title but this season, if the team kicks into form, there’s no reason why we can’t challenge.
I guess what I’m trying to say in a nutshell is this, the statistics that actually matter should start from last season when we made our first true star purchase and showed real intentions of fighting for something other than 4th place. Even then, we’re still kinda new at this (after 9 or so years of handicap) and I think Wenger is just having enough confidence to vary his team a bit in terms of strategy until he finds something that works and then we will all see what we’re capable of. I totally agree that we need centre back covers and we need a better DM than we already have to really be competitively ready for the title challenge (and Wenger should really have taken care of all these before the season started). But we’re still in the tinkering phase now and I still don’t think a DM would have massively changed our games so far.
Our worst game by far this season was the Dortmund game, which was much like the other big losses last season where stupid errors and super counterattacks slaughtered us. No DM could have single-handedly saved us in those matches unless he could’ve somehow made everyone around him play better on those days, which I doubt. I think we pretty much did well in most of the other games last season without the super-DM in place. This season, Chelsea with their own Super-DM conceded the same number of goals as we had going into the match. The difference was their attack was sharper which boiled down to us still experimenting. A sharper attack would have given us wins and probably the draw against City and that’ll have been 16 pts and 2nd place by now. Chelsea conceded 3 against Everton, we conceded 2. They scored 6, we scored 2. So, as much as a DM might have saved us some embarrassment so far, and is definitely needed, I don’t think it is the almighty solution so far this season. The attack is yet to click consistently. Once it does, then we can secure our backline in January and we’ll be very ready. If not this season, then next!
This is what I believe. Instead of spewing out narratives we’re all tired of hearing, why don’t we see the dispensations for what they are and realize that we’re actually moving forward. Here are stats that should actually matter now that we consider ourselves contenders:
Record against top four (Ch, MC, MU & Liv) since last season (All Comps) – P12 W2 D4 L6 (Very poor, yes, but we still have at least 6 more games against them this season).
Record against the rest of the league since last season – I seriously can’t do the math right now but this one has to be marked Excellent! We were the best of the lot at this.
Silverware won since last season – 2 (FA Cup, Comm. Shield)
World Class Players bought (above £30m purchases) – 2 (Ozil, Alexis)
Not too bad stats over nearly 1.25 seasons. We will get better! I believe so. Do you?
Come On You Gunners!!!